Kurt Donald Cobain was born 50 years ago today. Although he ended his tenure on earth at only 27, Nirvana remain an inescapable presence in modern music and Cobain’s legacy can be vividly felt. Although Nirvana began life in the underground Punk scene, within only a few years they’d become one of the biggest bands on earth.
A huge part of what allowed Nirvana to bridge the gap between the mainstream and the cult, was Kurt Cobain’s genius ear for melody. Even from the group’s earliest days Cobain’s songcraft had an undeniably poppy slant to it. Even at their heaviest, Nirvana were masters of the hook. Try as he might, Cobain never quite had it in him to create a genuinely abrasive record – even his most jarring compositions are laced with a certain melodic streak, even if it is buried under a mountain of fuzz.
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It’s often observed that the band’s earth-shatteringly popular ‘Nevermind’ is far more commercial that the records being put out by peers such as The Melvins, Meat Puppets and Big Black. This is undeniably true but it shouldn’t be viewed as a bad thing; quite the opposite in fact. The simple fact is that ‘Nevermind’ is an absolutely superb record. Brilliantly written and with an impeccable ear for melody, the album is essentially classic Beatlesesque pop filtered through the rage of Punk rock. ‘Nevermind’ is a wonderfully satisfying, complete record and one that reached an infinitely wider audience because of it. It’s all too easy to underestimate ‘Nevermind’ because of its Rock 101 status, but to do so is a huge disservice to a shining example of Kurt Cobain’s superb songcraft.
Even in Cobain’s earliest days, an obvious love for pop shines through. 2015’s ‘Montage of Heck’ gave an insight into Cobain’s musical genesis; a collection of early home recordings that, in amongst furious punk and avant-garde noise-collages, showcased an unabashed love of a strong hook and a well written melody. The set includes a touching acoustic cover The Beatles’ ‘And I Love Her’ and a solo demo of ‘Sappy’. Both signpost the direction Cobain would go in with Nirvana – ‘Sappy’ in particular being a perfect summary of the twisted, dark pop songs he was so inordinately talented at making.
Key also to Cobain’s influence was his ability to mesh genuinely alternative, confrontational sound with that love of pop. When talking about Cobain‘s innate sense of melody, it’s too easy to forget his love of the bizarre and challenging. Noise-rock titans The Melvins were a crucial influence on and personal friends of Cobain, especially during the late ’80’s. He was also a fan of equally defiant acts like the Butthole Surfers, Mudhoney and Flipper. Nirvana’s individualism came from fusing this love of vitriolic punk with his Beatles worship so evident on songs such as ‘About A Girl’ – and it was ultimately this blend of fun and fury that made the band so immensely successful.
Even a cursory glance at contemporary indie rock illustrates just what an influential legacy Nirvana left. Today, it’s not even questioned that rock can be both melodic and heavy, often at the same time. Back in the ’90’s the musical mainstream was somewhat separatist, ridgedly defined and ultimately more constricted for it. It’s not that there weren’t already bands breaking rules and innovating, it was that Nirvana managed to bring it to the mainstream in a way that hadn’t been done before, and it’s for that reason that the band – and especially Cobain – cast a long shadow over modern rock.
It wasn’t just in music that Cobain broke rules, either. He defied stereotypes on all sides and, in the process, empowered a generation of outsiders. In an age when most mainstream rock was misogynistic and embarrassingly macho, Cobain was a breath of fresh air. He once famously said “I’m not gay, although I wish I were, just to piss off the homophobes” – a refreshing alternative to the brash cock-rock so prevalent in the late ’80’s and one that helped topple hair metal’s dominance during the era.
Kurt Cobain made it OK to be different. Both in music and attitude, he was hard to pigeon-hole and although in the ensuing years many have tried, Cobain couldn’t be put into a box. The fact that such an alternative figure broke – albeit inadvertently – into the mainstream with such force sent out the message that you could be different and still be accepted. Today, no-one bats an eyelid at unique, original figures appearing in the mainstream, and Kurt Cobain helped that become a reality.